September 21st, 2011
04:50 PM ET
From Stan Wilson, CNN
(CNN) - When a prominent group of American Muslim and Christian leaders returned to Washington Monday after meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and top clerical leaders during a six-day visit to Iran, they expressed optimism that two American hikers would be released within a few days.
On Wednesday, their hopes were realized when Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were escorted out of Evin prison in Tehran after more than two years behind bars.
"We were very happy to learn about their release today," said Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), who visited Tehran last week as part of a religious delegation.. "We are extremely happy for the hikers, their families and the country."
Awad said his delegation met with Ahmadinejad and Swiss Embassy officials in New York Tuesday and received reassurances of an impending release. Ahmadinejad is in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly.
"Our goal has been to foster interfaith ties, build a system of understanding and ask the Iranian leadership to show compassion and mercy for the American hikers by allowing them to come home," said Awad.
The American delegation also included Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington; the Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane, Episcopal bishop of Washington and Interim Dean of Washington National Cathedral; and former North Carolina State Sen. Larry Shaw, said Awad.
"The delegation was informed by the Iranian authorities that its work prior to this trip and during its current stay in Iran was very helpful and important in the decision to release the hikers," according to a CAIR statement released Sunday. Awad told CNN the delegation traveled to Tehran at the invitation of Ahmadinejad.
The appeal for the release of Bauer and Fattal began with a series of personal letters addressed to Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders in September 2010, CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said.
In May, boxing legend Muhammad Ali joined more than a dozen prominent Muslim American and various interfaith leaders - including CAIR - at a news conference in Washington to publicly ask for the release of the two hikers.
Their appeal to the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khameni, was endorsed by the group, which has maintained a dialogue with clerical leaders in Iran, said Awad.
As Ali, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, sat motionless in a chair surrounded by Muslim community leaders, his wife, Lonnie Ali, spoke for him."Regardless of how things are going between the U.S. and Iran, the people of Iran are good people in their hearts and I can assure you they love this man. And based on that compassion, the love of Allah and the love of Muhammad, we ask for their release - their compassionate release," she said.
On the weekend of August 28, as Hurricane Irene made landfall in New York, CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad received an urgent summons by the office of Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, according to CAIR spokesman Hooper. "They wanted us to prepare for the visa process because of potential developments in the American hikers," he said. All major airports in the Northeast were shut down by weather, and Awad drove from Washington to New York through treachourous conditions, said Hooper.
Last week, Awad and three other members of the delegation boarded a flight to Tehran with a stop in Istanbul, Turkey. Their visit included meetings with Iranian religious scholars and leaders in the holy city of Qom and a meeting on Saturday with Ahmadinejad, said Awad.
"We can only hope the two men are freed soon on humanitarian grounds and that our visit fosters a better dialogue between Iranian and American leaders of faith," Awad said Sunday. The delegation was granted permission by government officials to visit Baur and Fattal in prison on Sunday but their request was postponed, said Awad.
The delegation also met with family members of Iranian citizens held in the United States, Awad said, adding that government officials there emphasized the need to work more effectively at "securing the freedom of Iranians in American jails. "There are 60 Iranian detainees in America and we should not forget them. The American government should show the same compassion for these people," he said.
"There was always a feeling that something could go wrong (before the release) because at the end of the day interfaith diplomacy is all about hope," said Awad.. "Today our hope was realized."
Fattal and Bauer, along a third hiker, Sarah Shourd, were arrested and taken into custody along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 and charged with espionage. Bauer and Fattal, both 29, were tried and sentenced last month to three years each for illegal entry into Iran and five years each for spying for the United States. Shourd was freed last year on medical grounds.
The United States has no formal diplomatic relations with Iran, and Awad's delegation coordinated its meetings with Swiss Embassy officials, Awad said. "We commend the Swiss for their assistance throughout this process," he added.
The American hikers said they accidentally crossed into Iran when they veered off a dirt road while hiking near a sight-seeing area in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. They have denied spying charges.
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